Carbon Monoxide Poisoning in Cats: Signs & Prevention

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Commonly known as the invisible killer, carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless and non-irritating gas that can be dangerous if inhaled in sufficient quantity. What many pet parents may not realize is that cats and other pets are at just as much risk as people. Let's take a look at what carbon monoxide is as well as the signs of carbon monoxide poisoning in cats.

Causes of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a gas that is produced any time a fossil fuel is burned. Carbon monoxide is produced by burning fuel in cars, trucks, engines, stoves, grills, fireplaces, gas ranges, furnaces and lanterns. If carbon monoxide builds up indoors, it can cause sudden illness and death in humans and pets. Poorly ventilated areas with any source of carbon monoxide, such as an oven, BBQ or fireplace, improperly vented furnaces, gas or kerosene heaters, and gas water heaters or house fires are all potential sources of carbon monoxide.

Carbon monoxide poisoning is the leading cause of unintentional poisoning deaths in people in the United States. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that carbon monoxide poisoning is the reason for approximately 400 human deaths annually in the U.S. and 20,000 emergency department visits. While we don't have statistics on how many house pets are affected every year by carbon monoxide poisoning, we do know that, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association, about 25% of U.S. households have cats. Therefore, cats are likely affected by many of the reported carbon monoxide poisoning cases.

Calico Maine Coon scratching chin with back leg.

Signs of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning in Cats

Carbone monoxide poisoning interferes with the blood's ability to carry oxygen. It can cause different signs based on whether a cat is exposed to a large amount of carbon monoxide all at once, such as being trapped in a garage with a car running, or small amounts over a long period of time.

Signs associated with acute (all of a sudden) carbon monoxide toxicity can include:

  • Loss of energy or acting excessively sleepy
  • Red gums or red skin
  • Incoordination or clumsiness
  • Seizures
  • Difficulty breathing

Signs associated with chronic (long term) exposure to carbon monoxide can include:

  • Vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Cough
  • Loss of energy
  • Deafness
  • Blindness

Cats who have any pre-existing heart or lung problems are at an increased risk for carbon monoxide poisoning. If you suspect that your cat has carbon monoxide poisoning, do not waste any time: Take your cat to your closest emergency veterinary hospital for examination and treatment.

Diagnosis and Treatment for Cats with Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Carbon monoxide poisoning is diagnosed with a combination of oral history, physical examination and laboratory testing. Blood samples will likely be drawn immediately, and your veterinarian will administer oxygen to your cat. Tests for carbon monoxide poisoning typically include a complete blood count, blood chemistry, blood gas analysis and blood pH testing. An electrocardiogram and chest radiographs (X-rays) may also be recommended.

Ginger cat sleeping on leather white sofa

Carbon monoxide poisoning is treated by providing oxygen to the brain and heart. Oxygen may be provided via a mask, an oxygen cage, or if your cat is unconscious, by a breathing tube. Hyperbaric chamber therapy can speed recovery, and your veterinarian may also administer intravenous fluid therapy to support your cat's recovery.

Preventing Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

The best way to keep yourself and your pets safe from carbon monoxide is by knowing the facts and taking preventive measures. These measures can not only save your cat but may save your life as well.

  • A carbon monoxide (CO) detector should be installed on every level of your home where you can hear it if it goes off, even in the middle of the night. Check the batteries twice a year, and replace the detectors every five years.
  • Have your furnace, boiler or water heater as well as any other coal, gas, oil or wood-burning appliances checked and serviced by a qualified technician every year.
  • Refrain from using portable flameless chemical heaters indoors.
  • If you smell an odor from your gas refrigerator, have it serviced by a qualified technician.
  • Check with an expert to ensure that all gas appliances are properly vented.
  • Check and clean your chimneys yearly.
  • Do not use a gas range or oven for heating and never burn charcoal or use a portable gas camp stove indoors.
  • Do not use a generator indoors or less than 20 feet from any window, door or vent. If you do use a generator, make sure you have a working battery-powered or battery backup carbon monoxide detector in your home.
  • Never run gas engines in a closed area or close to air intake vents.

With a few adjustments, you can dramatically reduce you and your pet's risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. Remember, if you ever have any questions about your pet's health or behavior, do not hesitate to contact your local vet.

Contributor Bio

Dr. Sarah Wooten

Dr. Sarah Wooten

A 2002 graduate of UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and certified veterinary journalist, Dr. Sarah Wooten has 16 years experience in small animal veterinary practice, is a well known international speaker and writer in the veterinary and animal health care spaces, and is passionate about helping pet parents learn how to care better for their fur friends.